Oak Street Beach

Oak Street Beach, with its nearly mile-and-a-half stretch of sand and shore and sights to see, is a beautiful place in any season. It's a perennial favorite of Chicagoans, who easily spend a few hours here just taking in the sights (natural or otherwise). Summer may be the time when the masses come out to swim in the lake, walk or bike along the Lakefront Trail, enjoy drinks and food al fresco and watch fellow beachgoers and passersby. But any time is the perfect time to check out one particularly noteworthy aspect in this area east of Lake Shore Drive: an ambitious, and massive, piece of public art.


A 260-ft. Mural with a Message

Oak Street Beach

Located in the shadow of the prestigious Drake Hotel, just a few hundred meters from Oak Street Beach, this 260-ft.-long mural titled “You Know What You Should Do” is a visual cornucopia of images that one might encounter on the beach. As you walk slowly up and down its length, you'll see the faces of Chicagoans, discarded chip bags, and flowers, all rendered in a rich array of colors by local artist Jeff Zimmerman.

It might seem strange, but this ambitious work is a type of public-service announcement, commissioned by the Chicago Park District to get beachgoers thinking about the stewardship of nearby Oak Street Beach, and more broadly the future of Lake Michigan. A piece of this size with this particular message is quite unique; yet it works so well because it has a certain degree of subtlety. Rather than shaming or admonishing passersby, images such as an outstretched hand waiting for a kernel of popcorn are meant to evoke a sense of empowerment: not simply, “Aha, maybe I shouldn't litter today," but also, "The future of the planet is ours to protect."


The Artist at Work

To Zimmerman, the piece isn't merely a public-service announcement, but rather part of an ongoing experiment to think about what is acceptable behavior in the public realm. He's completed 15 murals around the city, and they have all incorporated similar themes to address a range of social ills, small and large.

Watch him creating the Oak Street Beach mural:


A casual stroll along the length of "You Know What You Should Do" reveals over two dozen images. On a grey day, the various segments of the mural might take on different meanings from what they do on a sunny day. It's worth coming back at sunset to see the work in a vastly different light. Likewise, each segment viewed separately might bear a message distinct from its part in the whole. 

What message does the mural send to you? And what might you include if you were to craft your own mural with a message? What's the story you might tell in this neighborhood, or your own? Go on now, walk the mural's length and see what questions it raises for you. Come back another day and see how it—and you've—changed. 


O is for Oak Street Beach is part of an ongoing series exploring Chicago from A to Z, highlighting a unique Chicago place and theme for each letter of the alphabet. Check out the past posts and stay tuned for more entries!